Monday, January 18, 2010

Winter in Valley Forge

“It is beyond description to conceive what the men suffer . . .”
~Col. Philip Van Cortland,
in a letter to the Governor of NY, 13 Feb. 1778

It is cold. The wind whips down the grand parade of Valley Forge National Park. In winter the tree branches are exposed and bare. The landscape, which had been a spectacular panorama of fiery reds, oranges and yellows in autumn, is a muddle of drab browns and grays now. The ground is frozen, it is certainly no weather to enjoy a picnic, as you might if you came to Valley Forge in the spring. But winter is the time of year to visit Valley Forge.

In winter you can experience Valley Forge the same way George Washington and his troops did 232 years ago. You can walk the same paths, feel the same cold winds, and envision the harsh winter in store for the 12,000 soldiers who marched here from Philadelphia.

The soldiers’ first task was to build over 2,000 crude huts in which to lodge. No actual huts remain from the winter of 1777-78, but the park has many replicas that are constructed from Washington’s original plans. Historians believe most officers bunked with enlisted men too, although Gen. Washington did rent local businessman Isaac Potts’ house as his headquarters for that winter. That house, now known as Washington’s Headquarters, is open to the public and you can wander through the same halls where Washington and his men planned the future of the Revolution.

Much of the park’s 3500 acres are in their open, natural state. In winter you are not as distracted on your visit by the many people who come to Valley Forge to jog, bike or walk their dogs as you would be in spring or summer. You can walk the trails and observe the redoubts (earthen forts) that the troops built to defend their encampment, comfortable in your modern insulated coat and gloves, only imagining what it was like to spend the winter ill-equipped for such cold conditions. 

The Continental Army that spent the winter in Valley Forge was subject to harsh conditions and inadequate provisions, like most other Revolution-era troops. But the men did not let these conditions deter them from their goal. They spent that winter establishing camp and training under Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben of the Prussian army. In May 1778, the Continental Army that marched out to celebrate the alliance with France was a vastly improved, unified military force. The winter in Valley Forge proved to be a turning point in the American Revolution.

Valley Forge National Park buzzes with life almost all year round. But visit in the winter to have a true appreciation for the troops that fought to establish the freedom we all enjoy today.


  1. Sovereignty is perception and often unmet with consensus. Zero sum game nonetheless warrants acknowledgement of the road not taken (Robert Frost 1915) as well as the condition of that which was forged. Excellent essay, in my opinion!

  2. One day I hope to come and see some of your country and its history. An interesting blog.
    Thank you for the kind comments. I followed your link and discovered the beautiful writings about the snow.

  3. Your post inspires me to find out more about the "Revolution" and leaves me in awe of the courage of soliders and other settlers who would have endured such harsh winters - something we'd find unthinkable today.Winter is a great time to visit historic landscapes when more of the detailed topography becomes visible and more peace to enjoy. I wonder though, to what Freedom you refer?

  4. Brrr. I pulled my sweater more tightly around me as I read this beautifully-crafted piece that, for me, so evokes the essence of Valley Forge. Just before reading it, I was speaking to a friend who lives in Wayne but claims to live in Valley Forge ("just the other side of Valley Forge Mountain")where, he says, "It's always so damn cold here." The most vivid image I have of Valley Forge is that of the "crude huts" you so expertly describe. It brings pain just to think of those mostly-young men scrunched down in those dwarf-sized structures in the bitter winter cold. It also brings pain to think that, more than two centuries later, we still are sending our young people off to war. Thank you.


  5. Very evocative writing, especially the opening. I rarely drive through the park on Route 23 without thinking of those soldiers in their huts. You're right--now is exactly the right time to visit VF.

  6. By showing us Valley Forge in winter, you've deftly pulled us back from the doubtless lovely park it is to the history-making place it was, with well-chosen facts, evocative pictures, and many interesting links to explore. Nicely done!

  7. Your excellent post and selected photographs illuminate for me the passages in David McCullough's "1776" describing that harshest of winters.

    Thank you for this timely reminder of the dedication and sacrifice of those valiant souls who wintered at Valley Forge in the cause of our Revolutionary War.

  8. Cybersr has just made me aware of a wonderful article, related to this post, in the May, 2003, Smithsonian Magazine. It is called "Winter of Discontent, and can be found at As stated in the header to the article, "Even as he endured the hardships of Valley Forge, George Washington faced another challenge: critics who questioned his fitness to lead."

  9. Your lovely piece certainly makes me think of what our soldiers must be going through in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, and of the hardships soldiers have endured since time immemorial.


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